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There was a time in Hollywood when it seemed like every film with an openly gay or transgender protagonist was an issue movie. Movies like Philadelphia, The Birdcage, and Boys Don’t Cry seemed devised to introduce gayness to mainstream America. They were valuable and entertaining, but their views of sexual identity were filtered through a straight lens, and many grew tired of waiting for a richer array of stories by and for queer people.
A couple of decades on, those old types of stories are still being told (Milk, Dallas Buyers’ Club), but the movement to increase visibility of LGBTQ people in pop culture has resulted in new films that explore previously uncharted arenas of the gay experience.
The smart and thoughtful Do I Sound Gay? falls squarely into that category. It starts with a narrow focus but ends up a textbook example of how a small story can have huge implications.
Many people hate the sounds of their own voices, but for gay men, the issue is more complicated. Do I Sound Gay? goes far beyond the so-called lisp to examine the symptoms and causes of the stereotypical “gay voice,” using the voice of writer-director David Thorpe as a case study. He interviews a seemingly endless line of experts; there are speech coaches (including one who specializes in helping gay actors learn to talk “straight”), doctors, and notable gay public figures like David Sedaris and Dan Savage.
Piling smart, funny people onscreen is a recipe for a solidly entertaining film, but the subjects start to run together due to a disappointing lack of diversity. It is clear that Thorpe pulled from his circle of friends and colleagues, which is largely limited to white guys in Brooklyn. Do I Sound Gay? claims to be a comprehensive look at the issue; if it were, it would have needed more range.
The biological and psychological underpinnings of Thorpe’s voice make for good trivia, but the film works best when it focuses on the narrator himself. Do I Sound Gay? is less an intellectual inquiry into the gay voice than a personal one. Thorpe is a pleasant if not always riveting screen presence, but his most useful quality is his willingness to be wrong and look foolish. Early on, he goes to a speech therapist to try to change his voice, only to have it slowly dawn on him that he is suffering from “internalized homophobia.”
In fact, Thorpe’s self-hatred runs deeper than his vocal chords; he is stuck in a malaise after being left by his boyfriend (this happens before the movie takes place), and his concern over his voice is undergirded with insecurity. Why does every sentence Thorpe speaks sound like a question? He thinks it’s because he lacks confidence, and his conclusion (never quite stated but often hinted at in the film) is that this shortcoming has wrecked his relationship. “Who could fall in love with a braying ninny like me?” he asks in one heartbreaking moment.
In this way, Do I Sound Gay? explores a subject that has relevance far beyond the queer community: the human voice as a conduit to our psyche. The film takes this simple, universal idea and spools out strands of cultural, sociological, and physical inquiry, but its most resonant notes are personal. In other words, it’s the opposite of an issue movie.
Do I Sound Gay? opens July 24 at E Street Cinema.